April 29, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 219

The Arab Human Development Report III: An Appeal for Openness and Freedom

April 29, 2005 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 219


The Arab Human Development Report III: An Appeal for Openness and Freedom is the third in the series of reports on human development in the Arab world issued under the auspices of three organizations:

a. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

b. The Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.

c. The Arab Gulf Programme for United Nations Development Organizations.

The first report, issued in 2002, diagnosed the three fundamental deficits in the Arab world: Deficits in political rights, women's rights and knowledge. [1] The second report issued in 2003 looked into the state of knowledge acquisition at the beginning of the 21st century and concluded that the production and dissemination of knowledge in Arab countries remain weak despite the presence of significant Arab human capital. [2]

The third report, reviewed here, is subtitled "Towards Freedom in the Arab World." [3] The publication of this report was delayed by a few months because of criticism by a number of United Nations member states regarding the report's treatment of such hot issues as Iraq and Palestine and the report's suggestions, some implied, that the occupation of these territories is responsible for the political and social malaise that afflict the Arab nations. Though the report was finally issued in April 2005, its coverage is through July 2004 and hence it does not reflect the free and competitive elections in Iraq and in the Palestinian Authority.

In an interview following the issuance of the report, Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, the Director of the Regional Bureau of Arab States in the UNDP, who supervised the report's production, indicated that some Arab countries have objected to the mentioning of the disappearance in Cairo of the former Libyan Foreign Minister Mansour al-Kikhya, the disappearance of the Lebanese Shi'ite leader Imam Mousa al-Sadr while in Tripoli, Libya, and the assassination, in Arab countries, of various human rights activists. Egypt objected to the recommendation in the report calling for the freedom to establish political parties without restrictions. Egypt was to clarify later that its objection was limited to the establishment of a political party by the Muslim Brotherhood. [4] In a lecture at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on April 21 Dr. Hunaidi maintained that no substantive changes were made at the report during the waiting period.

Progress and Regression Since the Publication of the First Two Reports

In reviewing the progress made following the publication of the first report, Report III suggests that "some Arab countries" have taken steps to deal with the three deficits initially identified – namely those relating to knowledge acquisition, freedom and good governance and women's empowerment. (p.36) The report identifies "signs of political openness," including what one would consider the dubious call by the leadership of the ruling Ba'th Party in Syria for the separation of the executive power and the ruling party or the call by the Egyptian ruling National Democratic Party for the "licensed opposition parties to engage in dialogue on political reform." (p.38) The irony in the reference to "licensed" political parties appears to have escaped the attention of the authors since those who must approve the license can also withdraw it at will, as they have done in the past.

In short, the report offers anecdotal evidence of improvements but no evidence of sustainable changes in the political culture. By the report's own admission, there has been considerable regression in the areas of human rights violations, torture, and mistreatment in detention centers of human rights activists and imprisonment of journalists; indeed, in 2004, the countries under study held the world's worst record regarding the freedom of press. (pp.39-40)

An editorial in Beirut's Daily Star was titled "Arab leaders are just not getting the message on reform." The editorial points out that "not only have there been no significant advancements toward freedom and democracy in the Middle East, but regional events such as the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq have actually made matters worse." [5]

Not much is said in Report III that is relevant to the progress made since the publication of the second report in the area of knowledge acquisition, but it would have been unrealistic to expect significant changes in a short period.

The Nature of Human Development

Human development is a process of expanding "the range of human choice." As the Jamaican economist and Nobel Laureate Sir Arthur Lewis observed in the 1950s, the difference between the rich and the poor is not in the degree of happiness but rather in the number of choices that the rich have at their command. These choices cover the whole range of human existence from shelter to food, education, medical services, political association, and culminating in the exercise of the various forms of leisure. A low level of human development indicates the restricted number or even the absences of choices that one has at his/her disposal to enjoy the fullness of life and freedom.

Deficiencies in Human Development

Report III identifies a litany of deficiencies that place human development in the Arab world very much at the bottom of the global scale. Choices that individuals in a democracy exercise to enrich their lives are curtailed and even expropriated in this region by authoritarian leaders bent on perpetuating their rule by all means, including the use of instruments of compulsion under their command to insure compliance and to prevent deviation from the narrow paths which they have charted. It is this situation that has led the authors of this report, all of whom are Arab intellectuals, to look upon the Arab government as a "black hole" and to characterize the efforts of some of the Arab leaders to gain legitimacy as "legitimacy blackmail."

The "Black Hole" State

From a political perspective, the modern Arab state is something akin to the "astronomical model, whereby the executive apparatus resembles a 'black hole' which converts it's surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes." (p.15) In this state, the powers of the ruler are absolute; he uses them to tame the judiciary, dominate the media, turn parliament, to the extent that it exists, to a bureaucratic adjunct and use, or misuse, national wealth to enrich himself and a coterie of family members, political associates and friends.

Monopoly is defined as exclusive control of a commodity; in this case, the commodity is the government whose exclusive control insures extended power in the hands of the few and their illicit enrichment to the detriment of the population at large. Thus, a system of licensing can enrich the few by providing rent or by artificially pricing goods and commodities outside the mechanism of market forces.

The report also refers to powerful politicians and their close circle, who receive huge commissions for contracts concluded between the state and international or local companies, particularly armament contracts where the value of the contracts is highest and the commission is the heftiest. It is not surprising that direct foreign investment eschews these countries other than in extracting industries where the risks are high but so are the margins of profit.

Other Dimensions of the "Black Hole" State

A rentier model of production. The "black hole" state benefits from a rentier mode of production where revenues are accrued to the state, particularly given that most revenues are derived from the extraction of mostly unprocessed natural resources, primarily crude oil but increasingly also natural gas. When the source of revenues is not taxation the government does not feel the need for accountability since the government can act "as a generous provider that demands no taxes or duties in return." (p.152)

Taxes and accountability. Taxes in the Arab countries account for only a small percentage of public revenue, with a high of 17 percent of GDP in non-oil producing countries and a mere 5 percent of GDP in oil producing countries. Moreover, most of the revenues are derived from indirect taxes such as tariffs on imports and other forms of levies on licensing. Income tax revenues are negligible and tax evasion is rampant. (p. 152)

The most fundamental point made by the report is that if citizens do not pay direct taxes they cannot demand accountability for their money.

The Separation of Powers. One of the fundamental tenets of democracy is the separation of powers between the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary. But these principles are not absolute and, in practice, overlapping is inevitable. In the case of the United States, for example, a federal judge is nominated by the President but must be confirmed by the senate; the same judge can declare a law unconstitutional and thereby negate an act of congress.

According to Report III, the separation of power in the Arab world exists solely on paper. The leader, king, or president, can freely subordinate all these power to his own persona and often to his own whims.

Elections are often restricted to a ruling party or to a process of referendum where the voter has no other candidates to choose from. No one has taken the referendum to greater lengths of absurdity than Saddam Hussein who was declared winner in 2002 by one hundred percent of the votes cast, not including the vote of Ahmad bin Bella, a previous Algerian president who was visiting Iraq at the time of the referendum and was invited to cast his vote for Saddam Hussein.

Succession.An important tenet of constitutionalism is the order ofsuccession. Dictators do not like to entertain the idea of successors because they visualize themselves ruling forever. A good case is that of President Husni Mubarak of Egypt who has persistently refused, over his twenty-four years in power, to designate a vice president and to insure proper succession procedures. And there is the case of Syria where the succession was dictated after, rather than before, the death of President Hafez al-Assad following a constitutional amendment approved unanimously in a few minutes.

Corruption. Corruption, which is institutionalized in government and business throughout the region, reinforces this "black hole" phenomenon. So does "clannism "[ 'asabiya ] which reinforces a mindset of passivity and obedience to authority, along with intolerance of dissent. (p.145)

The "Legitimacy Blackmail"

Lacking the legitimacy which derives from having been freely chosen by those they govern, Arab rulers have sought other forms of legitimacy--religious, tribal, and nationalist.

According to Report III, some regimes have resorted to new methods to justify their continuation in power. They present themselves as the lesser of two evils or "the last line of defense against fundamentalist tyranny." Such argument is characterized by the report as the "legitimacy blackmail": we may be bad but the alternative is worse. The report points out that this argument has been eroded "by the growing realization that the absence of any effective alternative is itself one of the outcomes of the policies that block all avenues for political and civil activity." (p.16)

The case of Iraq proves that when given a chance to vote freely, the people relish the occasion. The 112 lists which competed in the Iraqi elections have given the Iraqi voter an unfettered access to a range of political choices seldom seen in Arab countries.

Women's Rights

"Nowhere in the Arab world," the report points out, "do women enjoy equality with men, even though equality is a fundamental human right." (p.92) The report laments that women suffer discrimination both under law and in practice. As a result, their participation in public affairs is relatively limited. This picture contrasts sharply with that of non-Arab Islamic states like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia in which, at one time or another, a woman has been prime minister or president. Public opinion polls show that Arab men are generally inclined to support equality of education for women but they hold a different opinion when it comes to employment and public life. Discrimination against women is becoming more acute in the Gulf countries and "in particular, in Saudi Arabia." (p.93)

These patterns of discrimination, which include less adequate medical services for women than for men, is reflected in the greater impact of disease on the life expectancy for females than for males in all Arab countries. What is even more surprising is that the life expectancy lost to disease is much higher for both men and women in Saudi Arabia than in Egypt, despite the relative poverty of the latter compared with the great wealth of the former. (figure 3-3)

Shari'a as a Source of Law

Many Arab countries are struggling to find a balance between the requirements of the Shari'a (Islamic law) and the constitutional provisions for human rights. Finding the balance is apt to be one of the contentious issues in the drafting of the new constitution in Iraq between those who insist that the Shari'a will be one source of legislation and those who insist that the Shari'a will be the only source.

Constitutional provision for the use of Shari'a as a source of legislation is not in itself a violation of human rights. However, the Report cautions against leaving the interpretation of Shari'a to the whims of individual judges instead of the legislators. "Investing discretionary powers in the judges to interpret the Shari'a text and choose among the multiple opinions of jurisprudence entails a lack of legal precision" that may be inconsistent with human rights and freedom, and can be used as a pretext for tyranny. (p.115) Even where the legislation is secular, the Arab constitutional legislator would be inclined to leave a loophole "so that the national legislator may violate rights and public freedoms." (p.116)

Occupation and Human Development

Report III devotes considerable attention to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the American-led coalition's occupation of Iraq. It provides a catalog of human rights violations that are now well documented.

The report dwells heavily on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Certainly, one should not fail to sympathize with the Palestinians who have endured almost forty years of occupation that has had an equally pernicious impact on the Israeli society and its democratic way of life. However, suggesting that the occupation is somehow responsible for much of what afflicts the Arab world in terms of the absence of good governance and personal liberties only strengthens the pretext of dictators who seek to perpetuate their rule "for the sake of Palestine."

The report also laments the occupation of Iraq which is not surprising given that most Arab peoples have objected to it, mainly on grounds of nationalist pride. Nevertheless, Report III would have served its readers better if it had highlighted the range of political, personal, and press freedoms introduced in Iraq after 35 years of a totalitarian regime. Lumping the Iraqi elections with the Saudi local elections which were restricted to males only over the age of 21 lacked a proper sense of balance and proportion on the authors' part. But, then one should not be terribly surprised at this disproportionality since Saudi money helped finance the report.

A Warning to Heed

Report III delivers a warning which should be heeded:

"If the repressive situation in Arab countries today continues, intensified social conflict is likely to follow. In the absence of peaceful and effective mechanisms to address injustice and achieve political alternation, some might be tempted to embrace violent protest, with the risk of internal disorder. This could lead to chaotic upheavals that might force a transfer of power in Arab countries, but such a transfer could well involve armed violence and human losses that, however small, would be unacceptable. Nor would a transfer of power through violence guarantee that successor governance regimes would be any more desirable." (p.19)

Corrective Actions

In addition to noting the need for a broad range of corrective action, the report underscores these immediate needs for reform:

  • Ensuring respect for the key freedoms of opinion, expression and association.
  • Ending all types of marginalization and discrimination against social groups and minorities.
  • Guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary and ending reliance on military tribunals and other 'exceptional' courts.
  • Abolishing the 'states of emergency' that have become permanent features of governance in the region and which stifles liberty and strip people of their constitutional rights.

These are moral imperatives which one cannot but endorse fully. The reality on the ground may place insurmountable hurdles.

Scenarios for Change

The report offers three scenarios for change in the Arab world:

Maintaining the Status Quo – The report refers to it as the "Impending Disaster Scenario." Doing nothing will lead to intensified societal conflict. "Contemporary history shows that continuation of the status quo might lead to destructive upheavals that could force a transfer of power."

The Ideal Scenario: The "Izdihar" Alternative - The term izdihar in Arabic means a flourishing or blooming of a process that once rooted will thrive, providing a solid foundation for freedom and good governance.

The "Half Way House" Scenario – promotes gradual and moderate reform, incorporating where appropriate regional or international initiatives. (pp.164-5)

The Report's Message

The overall picture drawn by Report III would suggest that the political architecture in the Arab countries does not conform to the building code underlying the construction of a democracy. It is deficient, if not deformed. It serves authoritarian rulers well but deprives the masses of their basic human rights.

The message of the report to the Arab countries is clear: reform now and manage the reform process your own way in keeping with your own traditions and culture, for if you wait, reform will be thrust upon you from outside. (p.141)

Freedom and Good Governance: An Historical Legacy

Report III devotes considerable space to a review of the cultural basis of freedom in the Arabic literature, both secular and religious.

Among the leading secular writes on this subject, the report cites the Egyptian thinker Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayyid: "Our spirits were created free, God having imbued them with nature of freedom."

Among the Islamists, the report cites no other than the Qatar-based (Egyptian in origin) Islamist Sheikh Dr. Youssef al-Qaradawi, a prominent spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, who argued thatthe liberal concept of freedom is based on a number of "extraneous" elements, "such as secularism, the nationalist movement, capitalist economics, and personal freedom as defined in the West, including women's freedom to wear practical modern clothing and mix with men, the implementation of foreign laws and parliamentary system." Such a concept contains no "spiritual" element, "which it deliberately neglects by 'turning away from God and refusing to follow His guidance.'" (p.57)

To bolster the argument that Islam is not antithetical to freedom the report quotes a famous phrase of Omar ibn al-Khattab, the second Islamic Khalif: "Since when have you compelled people to enslavement, when their mothers birthed them free?" What is really surprising, given that the report seeks to chart a course for freedom and democracy, that it has avoided a far more famous and significant dictate by ibn al-Khattab to his companions: "If you see deviation in me, straighten it out with your swords." It is a statement about the accountability of the rulers to the people (not necessarily the method), and the people's right to take action whenever the rulers have violated their rights.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.


[1] See MEMRI's review in Inquiry and Analysis Series No. 104, "Human Development in the Arab World: A Study by the United Nations," July 25, 2002, Human Development in the Arab World: A Study by the United Nations

[2] See MEMRI's review in Inquiry and Analysis Series No. 151, "The Failure to Establish a 'Knowledge Society' in Arab Nations: Arab Human Development Report" November 6, 2003, The Failure to Establish a 'Knowledge Society' in Arab Nations: Arab Human Development Report.

[3] "United Nations Development Programme, Arab Human Development Report 2004 –Towards Freedom in the Arab World" New York, April 2005.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 11, 2005

[5] The Daily Start (Beirut), April 6, 2005

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